Town hall chiefs are demanding increased powers on tax from the Scottish Government as they set out their intention of “getting the old, powerful local government back”.
Alison Evison, the president of the local government body Cosla, said there needed to be “a more sophisticated debate about sustainable funding for local government” – and insisted that “must include local government having the right financial levers”.
She made the call in her opening speech to the organisation’s annual conference, in which she made plain that local government should be seen as an equal partner to central government.
She told the conference, taking place on Thursday and Friday in St Andrews, that Scotland’s 32 councils were “a vital, equal component part in the democratic decision-making process”.
Ms Evison said: “We are uniquely placed to take the voice of the communities in which we live and work and to boost its volume, to raise the issues which matter.”
To help councils with this she stressed that “issues of taxation have to be looked at, not avoided”.
Ms Evison said her demands on the Scottish Government were “similar” to those made by Finance Secretary Derek Mackay on the UK Treasury.
Her message to him was: “Local government is a legitimate sphere of government in Scotland, not a sub-committee.”
Councils across Scotland employ more than 240,000 people – providing nearly 10% of jobs in the country – and together spend almost £19 billion a year on providing local services.
Following on from that, Ms Evison insisted local authorities needed “appropriate core funding for essential services”, including enough cash to pay staff a “fair wage”.
Councils also need their funding put on a longer-term basis, she said, going on to call for “real flexibility around local taxation and taxation options”.
Ms Evison said: “We need a more sophisticated debate about sustainable funding for local government and that must include local government having the right financial levers to respond to communities.”
While some councils are calling for the powers to introduce a so-called tourist tax, which visitors would pay as part of hotel stays, Holyrood ministers have so far been reluctant to grant them the authority to do this.
But Ms Evison said: “Scottish Government cannot get upset or annoyed when we look at raising more of our own finance through things like discretionary local taxation and particularly the transient visitor tax.”
She made the case for councils to have more powers over tax as she told the conference that authorities needed to be able to adapt to changing times.
“The world is changing and I think we need our agenda to be more about getting the old, powerful local government back,” she stated.
“A strong powerful local government with a strong agenda could lead to real change for the better right across Scotland.”
She insisted Cosla was not just a lobbying organisation, but was “a legitimate sphere of government in Scotland”.
And while she stressed councils would work in partnership with ministers at Holyrood, she insisted the relationship between them must be one of equals.
As part of this she said councils wanted to see the re-establishment of regular meeting between Cosla and the Scottish Cabinet.
Ms Evison stated: “I am not prepared to put other organisations or sectors before local government. Alongside us as partners, yes. As our superiors, no.
“We are elected representatives in the governance of the country. You will hear me say this time and time again. This is simply to emphasise how important this is.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We want to devolve more power to give communities a greater say about their public services. That is why we have launched a review, jointly with Cosla, to find ways to transform local democracy in Scotland.
“While we have no plans to introduce new local tax powers, we are open to further dialogue on options for local tax reform.”